Category Archives: Tyranny

Mockingjay 1 and 2

Release dates: 2014 and 2015
Setting: 2100s+

  • Futurism — 7. The series gives some thought to the nature of social control and political power.
  • Plausibility — 7. The situations depicted are shown fairly plausibly; despite its origins in young-adult science fiction material, this series takes war more seriously than a lot of war movies.
  • Storytelling — 7-8. Relative realism keeps the story worth watching.

The United States as we know it is gone, transformed politically and culturally. It is unclear whether this was the result of a gradual evolution or some cataclysm, though the drastic results suggest the latter. The country is still suffering the effects of a civil war about 75 years before.

The background conditions for the “Hunger Games” series are disturbingly plausible:

Nuclear weapons will likely be joined by new menaces such as bioengineering, and nanotechnology could become a threat. International relations are more peaceful than they have been in the past, but great-power war is still possible, or the U.S. could be devastated by civil war.

As for authoritarianism, it is always a plausible outcome for destabilized, large-scale societies.

Weaponized biotech animals
Animals and insects engineered for combat — “muttations” — are some of the more creative elements of this series. They are increasingly possible, as our bioengineering capabilities rise, but somewhat unlikely, as they would tend to be difficult to use.
FatM-bioengineered insects

Note that the most dangerous animal in the world is currently the mosquito, which infects millions with disease, and mosquitoes are the most plausible insect target for weaponization. While mosquitoes could be made worse, plans are moving ahead to use biotech to de-weaponize the creatures.

In these movies, the Capitol deploys other muttations based on mammals and reptiles. Possibility and likelihood are somewhat similar to those for insects, at least for combat animals. For other purposes, genetic engineering of mammals is likely.

Science Fictional Inequality

Hunger-Games-CapitolI sometimes doubt the realism of science fictional inequality. Why — and how — would the Capitol in “The Hunger Games” live in fabulous, high-tech luxury while the districts struggle in squalor? Wouldn’t the entire system work much better with at least a little more equality? Why would poverty persist in the world of “Minority Report,” when per capita income is said to be $400,000 a year?

Equatorial Guinea, a small country on west coast of Africa, snaps me back to reality. With about 800,000 people and billions of dollars of oil and gas sales, the country had a healthy per capita income of $33,000 in 2015 — similar to European countries such as Spain or Italy. The ruling Obiang family could easily make citizens’ lives much better while still keeping huge wealth for themselves. That isn’t what has happened. As The Economist puts it,

While most of his citizens live on less than $2 a day, the older Mr Obiang once shelled out $55 million for a Boeing 737 with gold-plated lavatory fittings. His son had at one point amassed $300 million in assets, including 32 sports cars, a Malibu mansion and nearly $2 million in Michael Jackson memorabilia…. [The country’s] GDP expanded by an average of almost 40% per year between 1996 and 2006. But little wealth trickled down to the population. Though its GDP per head is the highest in Africa, over three-quarters of its population lives below the World Bank’s poverty line. Government spending on education and health lags far behind the sub-Saharan African average…. [Hospital] patients must bring their own sheets and share their rooms with rats.

Super-villainous societies are, alas, all too realistic.

The Constituency for Tyranny

In futurist movies, the US has often fallen under some kind of tyrannical government — see, for instance, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Americans see themselves as deeply attached to freedom, but polling data consistently reveals a minority with at least some authoritarian inclinations.

A new Pew poll shows that:

  • Only 31% of Americans think that torture is never justified; 42% say that it is often or sometimes justified. Sixty-five percent of Republicans say that torture is often or sometimes justified.
  • Half of all Americans think that government wiretaps of suspected terrorists without court approval is “generally right;” 74% of Republicans say this.

These opinions are based on fear of attack; what more would be deemed allowable in more extreme circumstances?

Review: “V for Vendetta”


Event / Likelihood
Totalitarism in Britain by 2020 — very low, even decades after that date
Severe bioterror attack — medium

Overall rating: 5.5 (40th of 119 movies)

Futurism rating: 4
This movie is more about the politics of the present than a vision of the future. It does not attempt a meaningful depiction of how societies actually creep toward tyranny.

Entertainment rating: 7
For a movie about terrorism and oppression, this movie ducks every hard question. “Violence can be used for good,” a character states, but that idea is accepted in some form by every society. The regime depicted is sufficiently odious that resisting it is clearly moral.

Despite its imperfections, the movie is interesting as an unfolding series of mysteries, and occasionally as visual spectacle.

Plausibility rating: 7
Unlikely, but there are no inherent or absolute reasons it could not occur.

(A sidenote: we know where the crowd got its masks, but it was impressive that they managed to assemble the entire Zorro ensemble.)

Approach to the future
Vehicle for views on current events



By 2020, England has fallen under control of a vicious fundamentalist Christian regime, brought to power in a climate of fear created by war and plague.

It happened very rapidly: in 2015 things seem to have been normal, and by 2018 the government was rounding up lesbians and banning Islam and many kinds of art.

The trigger was a bioterror attack that killed 80,000 people, amidst a chaotic and dangerous world situation. (The US has apparently dissolved into civil war.)

Such a calamity would trigger drastic responses, but they would flow from the nature of the society afflicted. A stable Western European nation is unlikely to fall so far, so fast.

Above all, England does not have a reservoir of extremists from which to draw, particularly in the religious sphere. A fundamentalist regime is far more plausible in the US, where the “Christian right” has heavily politicized itself. Even here, only a minority of that group has truly authoritarian tendencies.

A much better depiction of tyranny in England is the Richard III set in an alternate 1930s, when that country had some actual fascists. Christian extremism is more the forte of the US, and is well-depicted in the futurist film The Handmaid’s Tale.

Thousands are killed by an engineered bioterror agent.

This is all too plausible. Biotech capabilities are steadily growing, and the possibility of garage bioterror looms, potentially enabling a situation like that in Twelve Monkeys.

Monitoring traffic…and everything else

The British government “will soon be able to automatically track the movements of millions of cars on most of its major roads.”

Thousands of fixed and mobile cameras will be able to check license plates against a national database, instantly determining if a vehicle requires police attention. A van flagged for lack of insurance was pulled over and found to contain $180,000 worth of heroin.

This is one part of the infrastructure of social control necessary for dystopian visions such as 1984 and, well, Demolition Man.

Britain is arguably safe from oppressive excesses, but many societies would like to put similar systems in place to control far more than criminals on the road.